Finance Finance News CEO donates $167k bonus after Dreamworld outrage

CEO donates $167k bonus after Dreamworld outrage

deborah thomas ardent leisure
Ms Thomas was criticised for her handling of the tragedy. Photo: AAP
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Ardent Leisure CEO Deborah Thomas has yielded to public pressure by donating $167,500 to charity after a public relations nightmare following the Dreamworld tragedy.

Luke Dorsett, 35, his sister Kate Goodchild, 32, his partner Roozbeh Araghi, 38, and Cindy Low, 42, died this week at Dreamworld, a Gold Coast theme park operated by the ASX-listed parent company.

During a heated press conference in Sydney on Thursday, Ms Thomas refused to comment on whether she would relinquish her six-figure bonus, approved by shareholders less than an hour earlier at the company’s annual general meeting.

deborah thomas ardent leisure
Ms Thomas took over as CEO in March 2015 after a stint as editor-in-chief of The Australian Women’s Weekly. Photo: AAP

“That is a question for the board. It is a question for the shareholders. And it was voted today and it’s not really the time to be discussing that right now, under the circumstances,” she replied.

The reaction was swift. Her remuneration package was widely condemned on social media. Several experts told The New Daily the decision by the board to wave it through was “grotesque” and a “very bad look”.

At 6pm, Ms Thomas issued a statement saying she would donate the sum to the Australian Red Cross, which will distribute it to “people affected by this tragic event”.

Ms Thomas, who oversees the day-to-day operations of the entire company, was to receive a total of $1.34 million for the last financial year, which ended on June 30.

As part of the package, she had already been paid $670,000 in base salary and the cash bonus of $167,500. The remainder, in shares and long-term incentives, were approved at the AGM.

Earlier in the day, Dr Andy Schmulow, a financial regulation advocate at The University of Western Australia, said it was “grotesque” and “unforgivable” that the board had made no attempt to wind back the remuneration package.

Allan Goldin, a spokesman for the Australian Shareholders’ Association, who attended the AGM, agreed the remuneration vote was “a bad look for the company, a very bad look, undoubtedly”.

But he was not critical of the board, saying it had few options.

Chair refused to defer remuneration vote

During the company’s AGM on Thursday morning, outgoing chairman Neil Balnaves refused a request to defer all resolutions to give shareholders time to reconsider their votes in light of the tragedy.

neil balnaves
Neil Balnaves has served as Ardent Leisure chairman for 13 years. Photo: AAP

A shareholder argued that proxies had been collected on Tuesday morning, before the Dreamworld tragedy, and thus his fellow shareholders might want to rethink.

Mr Balnaves said the seven resolutions (which included a non-binding vote on the remuneration report) were crucial to the operation of the company and could not be delayed.

The New Daily understands the chairman could have deferred the remuneration vote by pushing it to the back of the agenda and then adjourning the meeting to a later date.

Under corporate law, the company could not cancel the AGM.

The company’s share price has taken a hammering. It plummeted from $2.67 on Tuesday afternoon, before the tragedy, to $1.86 when trading resumed on Wednesday morning.

It recovered to around $2.10 in later trading, and jumped up a few cents after the AGM on Thursday, a sign the market was heartened by the board’s contrition.

‘Impact on profits will diminish’

Mr Balnaves, who is retiring after 13 years as chair, conceded the tragedy would impact on theme park profits for months to come.

The parent company sees its US expansion more important to growth than its Gold Coast theme parks. Photo: AAP
The parent company sees its US expansion more important to growth than the Gold Coast theme parks. Photo: AAP

“It will have a material effect on Dreamworld’s result in the second half, there’s no doubt about that. And there will be a continuing effect, I would expect, through the next financial year.

“But it will diminish as time goes by. I don’t say that in any unkind way … that is the usual process of events.”

Mr Balnaves said the Thunder River Rapids ride, where the deaths occurred, will be closed until the conclusion of the coronial inquiry.

Ardent Leisure is currently focussed on expanding its US bowling, billiards and laser tag subsidiary, Main Events Entertainment, which is its biggest earner. It brought in $US174.6 million in revenue in 2015-16, with EBITDA of $US43.5 million, an increase of 18 per cent on the previous year.

Its Gold Coast theme parks — DreamWorld, WhiteWater World and SkyPoint — brought in $A107.5 million in revenue, with EBITDA of $A34.7 million, an increase of 8 per cent.

The chairman told the media that Ardent Leisure “won’t be cutting and running” from its theme park business. But he wouldn’t rule out selling them off if a “absolutely fabulous offer” came along.

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